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LEARNING TO VALUE A DOLLAR
I was awake one night and turned on my radio, and I heard them announce that Sam Walton was the richest man in America. And I thought, ‘Sam Walton. Why, he was in my class.’ And I got so excited.”
former history and speech teacher at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri
Success has always had its price, I guess, and I learned that lesson the hard way in October of 1985 when Forbes magazine named me the so-called “richest man in America.” Well, it wasn’t too hard to imagine all those newspaper and TV folks up in New York saying “Who?” and “He lives where?” The next thing we knew, reporters and photographers started flocking down here to Bentonville, I guess to take pictures of me diving into some swimming pool full of money they imagined I had, or to watch me light big fat cigars with $100 bills while the hootchy-kootchy girls danced by the lake.
I really don’t know what they thought, but I wasn’t about to cooperate with them. So they found out all these exciting things about me, like: I drove an old pickup truck with cages in the back for my bird dogs, or I wore a Wal-Mart ball cap, or I got my hair cut at the barbershop just off the town square—somebody with a telephoto lens even snuck up and took a picture of me in the barber chair, and it was in newspapers all over the country. Then folks we’d never heard of started calling us and writing us from all over the world and coming here to ask us for money. Many of them represented worthy causes, I’m sure, but we also heard from just about every harebrained, cockamamy schemer in the world. I remember one letter from a woman who just came right out and said, “I’ve never been able to afford the $100,000 house I’ve always wanted. Will you give me the money?” They still do it to this day, write or call asking for a new car, or money to go on a vacation, or to get some dental work—whatever comes into their minds.
Now, I’m a friendly fellow by nature—I always speak to folks in the street and such—and my wife Helen is as genial and outgoing as she can be, involved in all sorts of community activities, and we’ve always lived very much out in the open. But we really thought there for a while that this “richest” thing was going to ruin our whole lifestyle. We’ve always tried to do our share, “but all of a sudden everybody expected us to pay their way too. And nosy people from the media would call our house at all hours and get downright rude when we’d tell them no, you can’t bring a TV crew out to the house, or no, we don’t want your magazine to spend a week photographing the lives of the Waltons, or no, I don’t have time to share my life story with you. It made me mad, anyway, that all they wanted to talk about was my family’s personal finances. They weren’t even interested in Wal-Mart, which was probably one of the best business stories going on anywhere in the world at the time, but it never even occurred to them to ask about the company. The impression I got is that most media folks—and some Wall Street types too—either thought we were just a bunch of bumpkins selling socks off the back of a truck, or that we were some kind of fast buck artists or stock scammers. And when they did write about the company they either got it wrong or just made fun of us.
So the Walton family almost instinctively put a pretty tight lid on personal publicity for any of us, although we kept living out in the open and going around visiting folks in the stores all the time. Fortunately, here in Bentonville, our friends and neighbors protected us from a lot of these scavengers. But I did get ambushed by the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” guy at a tennis tournament I was playing in, and Helen talked to one of the women’s magazines for an article. The media usually portrayed me as a really cheap, eccentric recluse, sort of a hillbilly who more or less slept with his dogs in spite of having billions of dollars stashed away in a cave. Then when the stock market crashed in 1987, and Wal-Mart stock dropped along with everything else in the market, everybody wrote that I’d lost a half billion dollars. When they asked me about it I said, “It’s only paper,” and they had a good time with that.
But now I’d like to explain some of my attitudes about money—up to a point. After that, our finances—like those of any other normal-thinking American family—are nobody’s business but our own. No question about it, a lot of my attitude toward money stems from growing up during a pretty hardscrabble time in our country’s history: the Great Depression. And this heartland area we come from out here—Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas—was hard hit during that Dust Bowl era. I was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in 1918 and lived there until I was about five, but my earliest memories are of Springfield, Missouri, where I started school, and later of the little Missouri town of Marshall. After that, we lived in Shelbina, Missouri, where I started high school, and still later Columbia, where I finished high school and went on to college.
My dad, Thomas Gibson Walton, was an awfully hard worker who got up early, put in long hours, and was honest. Completely, totally honest, remembered by most people for his integrity. He was also a bit of a character, who loved to trade, loved to make a deal for just about anything: horses, mules, cattle, houses, farms, cars. Anything. Once he traded our farm in Kingfisher for another one, near Omega, Oklahoma. Another time, he traded his wristwatch for a hog, so we’d have meat on the table. And he was the best negotiator I ever ran into. My dad had that unusual instinct to know how far he could go with someone—and did it in a way that he and the guy always parted friends—but he would embarrass me with some of the offers he would make, they were so low. That’s one reason I’m probably not the best negotiator in the world; I lack the ability to squeeze that last dollar. Fortunately, my brother Bud, who has been my partner from early on, inherited my dad’s ability to negotiate.
Dad never had the kind of ambition or confidence to build much of a business on his own, and he didn’t believe in taking on debt. When I was growing up, he had all sorts of jobs. He was a banker and a farmer and a farm-loan appraiser, and an agent for both insurance and real estate. For a few months, early in the Depression, he was out of work altogether, and eventually he went to work for his brother’s Walton Mortgage Co., which was an agent for Metropolitan Life Insurance. Dad became the guy who had to service Metropolitan’s old farm loans, most of which were in default. In twenty-nine and thirty and thirty-one, he had to repossess hundreds of farms from wonderful people whose families had owned the land forever. I traveled with him some, and it was tragic, and really hard on Dad too—but he tried to do it in a way that left those farmers with as much of their self-respect as he could. All of this must have made an impression on me as a kid, although I don’t ever remember saying anything to myself like “I’ll never be poor.”
We never thought of ourselves as poor, although we certainly didn’t have much of what you’d call disposable income lying around, and we did what we could to raise a dollar here and there. For example, my mother, Nan Walton, got the idea during the Depression to start a little milk business. I’d get up early in the morning and milk the cows, Mother would prepare and bottle the milk, and I’d deliver it after football practice in the afternoons. We had ten or twelve customers, who paid ten cents a gallon. Best of all, Mother would skim the cream and make ice cream, and it’s a wonder I wasn’t known as Fat Sam Walton in those days from all the ice cream I ate.
I also started selling magazine subscriptions, probably as young as seven or eight years old, and I had paper routes from the seventh grade all the way through college. I raised and sold rabbits and pigeons too, nothing really unusual for country boys of that era.